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  • Zander Oldring

Brand of the Week: NBA – it's back!

NBA Season Tip Off is 18th October and we at One Minute to Midnight can’t wait. Will Steph and the Warriors can go back to back or will Giannis come back with a vengeance and lead the Bucks to another victory? And who can ever write of The King; LeBron…

But what makes the NBA so captivating? Is it because it’s one of the biggest sports globally? Not only is it the number two league in the US, but it’s the number one league in China and has millions – or billions depending whose data you’re looking at – of fans around the world. And with a rumoured $75bn media rights valuation in the next round of TV rights sell off for the league, it’s also big business. So we couldn’t help but have a little look at what values define the league, and – perhaps more importantly

Isn’t everything just about Power?

There’s an argument that everything we do as humans is about power, even if we’re too ashamed to admit it. But let’s think about what power is in the context of our framework. Three adjectives define the power value in the Schwartz psycho-social model; Powerful / Influence / Prestigious.

Let’s start with the last of those three, Prestigious. As a young kid in the US dreaming of success and recognition, there can be few things more prestigious than becoming an NBA player. Indeed, when you think about the sporting icons of the 20th and 21st Century, NBA players regularly rise to the top. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe and – of course, Michael Jordan. Then NBA elevates many players from sporting icon to cultural phenomena. Indeed, there’s an argument that the game of Basketball as a whole contributes to this for a few reasons.

And then there’s the fact they don’t wear helmets. How do helmets have anything to do with this, you ask? Well, let me answer your question with a question. How many NHL or NFL players do you think you could recognize without a helmet on? Brady, Rodgers, Mahomes, Gretzky and Ovechkin for sure. But beyond that we’re struggling. Yet many NBA players are instantly recognizable because their face is on show more, and this breeds more fame when they’re in the public sphere.

So what about influence? Let’s start by thinking about what influence means. The ability to impact the thoughts, feelings and decisions of others is what we’ll use here. And the NBA has that in bundles. Going back to our discussion around prestige, a unique aspect of NBA is its cultural saliency.

What other sports competition can you think of that’s impacted music, film, television, business and fashion in such sizeable ways? Air Jordan’s are, after all, one of the key ingredients to Nike’s success. Without Jordan the player, there’s no Air Jordan. And without the NBA there’s no Michael Jordan. This cut through has allowed the NBA to become a global brand in a manner that only the Premier League can really claim to have.

So there’s no doubt the NBA is a league that not only represents, but embodies power, influence and prestige. And it does it in a way unlike any other league on the planet.

Power With a Purpose- Universalism

What else springs to mind when we think of the NBA? Let’s consider the past few years and major events the NBA has been involved in. The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of US police has resulted in NBA players taking a stand. Alongside their WNBA counterparts, NBA players and staff are often seen as the most outspoken on issues of social justice, racism and sexism. Indeed, TIDES gave the NBA a 2022 racial and gender report card rating of A. It’s no wonder, therefore, why NBA fans are some of the most diverse in the world.

And add to that the accessibility of the game. A ball and a hoop. That’s all anyone needs to play basketball, and it’s quite a stark contrast from other major leagues. Think of the barrier to entry for (American) football, golf, cycling, tennis or even baseball and soccer (where space and equipment is the premium). Basketball has the advantage that its cheap, easy to play, and courts are widely accessible in urban areas.

So what do accessibility and social justice have in common? We see this as part of the wider value of Universalism – the desire for equality, fairness and responsibility in the world. That’s not to say that it’s an undertaking at every level of the NBA. The recent controversy around the Phoenix Suns Owner Robert Sarver highlights that while the NBA has a reputation as progressive and built on Universalism, its only as true to that as the people that make up the league. This is not to even mention the Daryl Morey tweets around Hong Kong in 2019 and the challenging position it put the league in. Ultimately it leads to a bigger conversation for global brands and sports leagues – how can they stay true to progressive, universal values whilst operating in markets that are seen to contravene these issues? Is it even possible?

Stimulation Or Self-Direction?

We’ve spoken a fair amount about the NBA off the court. Its cultural influence, its stand on social justice, its challenges with pleasing a global fan base. But what about on the court? Two potential values can define the NBA on the court – Stimulation and Self-Direction. Let’s start with the former.

Stimulation is all about excitement, adventure and thrills. And that’s arguably what makes the NBA such a spectacle. One moment for me, typifies this: 2019 Kwahi Leonard’s Buzzer Beater for the Raptors. There was something poetic about the way that ball danced provocatively around the rim before gently descending in. It was iconic, miraculous even. And that, for me, is the beauty and unpredictability of sport. The energy of fans in the stadium and around the world watching was incredible. So stimulation is definitely a contender for the NBA’s third value, though arguably this is no point of differentiation from other sporting brands.

But what about Self-Direction? The ability to be creative, different and imaginative are all traits present in the NBA. The inspired moments of players throughout the years have helped the league permeate wider culture. Whether that be Jordan’s intense competitiveness – “and I took that personally” – Linsanity or Steph’s unbelievable three point ability, these moments of inspired brilliance cut through to what we now think of as being viral. But it goes beyond in-game moments. The NBA All-Star Weekend is a podium for that self-expression and creativity. It’s an opportunity for players to try something new, to entertain and please crowds through a slam dunk contest, or the All-Star game. Even if that does seem to have lost some of its lustre in the past years, it is evident that Self-Direction stands as a potential value that helps the NBA stand out.

And with all that in mind, here’s some thought starters for you to take away:

  • Stimulation or Self-Direction? Which do you think stands out as more critical to the NBA’s brand

  • How does it differ from other entertainment and sports brands?

  • What about key players, what are LeBron’s values and how do they differ? What does it matter if they do?

  • And what can other sports learn from the NBA?

If your curious to find out more, get in touch! We’d love to chat about your thoughts on this, and even how we could map values on to your brand and audience.

From human to human,

Zander (Research Director)

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